Flight simulator brings combat zones to Fort Bragg
Chief Warrant Officers Rafael Caldeira, left, and Ryan Carroll use a CH-47 Chinook helicopter simulator to hone their instrumentation skills while on permissive leave from Afghanistan. The simulator has many different locations and environments stored in its database. During this exercise, the pilots were required to navigate their Chinook around Washington, D.C.

FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Even on rest and relaxation leave, CH-47 Chinook pilots with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade can't seem to escape their missions in Afghanistan.

During their recent break from combat, Chief Warrant Officers Ryan Carroll and Rafael Caldeira spent 12 hours honing their helicopter piloting skills in Fort Bragg's only F-model Chinook flight simulator.

Like any good Army training tool, this piece of equipment has a longer, more technical name easily made into an acronym: transportable flight proficiency simulator.

Pat Trotter, an Army Chinook pilot by trade, instructs and evaluates Soldiers on the complicated array of instruments located in the helicopter's cockpit, which is similar to that of a commercial airliner.

Trotter describes the TFPS as the "$9 million box." That sounds like a large price tag, but Trotter, a retired chief warrant officer, said the simulator more than makes up for it.

"We can use the simulator to practice almost anything that can go wrong, like engine failures," said Trotter. "We can't use real aircraft to practice that kind of stuff because you could tear up the aircraft or get people killed."

The simulator is made up of an exact replica of a Chinook cockpit. In fact, all of the equipment inside the TFPS can be transplanted and used in a real CH-47F. An article on the Defense File Web site described the equipment as "easily transported and include a cost-saving combination of commercial off-the-shelf and aircraft components as well as state-of-the-art graphics." The only difference between the simulator and a real CH-47 is that the simulator is missing the distinct helicopter odor of grease and sweaty Soldiers.

"We can load any number of environments from the computer's database," explained Trotter. "The Soldiers can train with a desert environment, in snowy conditions, on the ocean. I can manipulate the weather in any number of ways to keep these guys on their toes."

The TFPS uses satellite imagery projected onto a large Mylar screen. The graphics appear to be 3D and are highly detailed. Trotter pointed out that the simulator's computer program is so "smart" that during the night mode, the positions of the moon and stars are accurately represented as the "evening" progresses.

During Carroll and Caldeira's training sessions, Trotter required the pilots to fly in a lightning storm over the mountains of Afghanistan, then in a snowstorm in the western United States, and finally onto the flight deck of a naval vessel on the high seas.

"The graphics on the simulator are very realistic," said Caldeira. "We get the opportunity to practice some of the skills we don't use every day in Afghanistan."

For this session, Caldeira was conducting his annual evaluation on his ability to use the helicopter's instruments to pilot the aircraft. Carroll was there to fulfill his regular simulator training hours.

Trotter monitored the pilots' every move during the training and offered positive and negative criticism aimed at improving their skills. And in case the two missed anything, their session was digitally recorded.

"Once we are done in the simulator, I can actually show the pilots everything they did on a DVD," explained Trotter.

"That way, if they don't believe they made a mistake that I pointed out, I can go back and show them what they did. They can watch themselves and then learn from their mistakes."

The TFPS is capable of simulating many catastrophic events which could potentially put real Chinooks or Soldiers in danger. However, the training tool cannot replicate incoming enemy fire. Trotter said those programs are currently being developed and should be incorporated in the near future. In spite of this limitation, Trotter said he believes the TFPS is an invaluable piece of equipment that should not be taken for granted.

"We don't ever treat this like a video game," said Trotter. "These guys come in here to train, and there is never any screwing off. The kinds of scenarios we run are what these pilots will be facing in real-life combat situations, like in Afghanistan and Iraq. They can take this wherever they go."

Page last updated Thu January 28th, 2010 at 15:35